The right key for key-wind and key-set watches
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  1. #1
    Member Border-Reiver's Avatar
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    The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    If you have a key-wind and key-set watch, in most cases you do not have the original key for it and will most likely look for a newly made replacement key. But these keys can be problematic and often a sure way to mess up your watch. That makes it important for collectors to be careful and selective with the keys they are using.

    The square shafts for winding (on the movement) and for setting (on top of the hands) are made of less hard steel (iron) than what is used for these new keys. This makes these square shafts very vulnerable for abrasion or damage.

    Key and shaft often don’t match, due to different measurement systems for shafts and keys. Different keys with the same numbers vary in dimension from maker to maker. Moreover, these keys often do not even correspond to their own specifications, also with differences amongst themselves within the same key numbers.

    Especially on shafts that are already showing wear and tear, it is important to have a size as close as possible to the shaft dimensions. On top of that (something most collectors don’t recognize as important): The inner square of these new keys (unlike old ones as shown in the first picture) does not go all the way to the front end. I don’t know why they came up with the idea to move that further inwards. This however means, that you do not have the full grip all along the shaft. The use of the wrong key can also lead to the shaft taking a conical shape sooner or later. This is also something you have to look for when selecting watches to buy.

    As old keys are hard to come by, you more or less have to live with a set of new keys (better three or four to find the right size within the same key-number). You can also buy your keys separately, as you normally don’t use most numbers in the set. Once I found a suitable key, I leave it with the particular watch and replace it. I also look around for old keys (which all have the square inside going all the way to the end), but they are expensive and you have to get the right sizes, which is often a gambling game.

    Whatever, there is one thing you should do: Take a Dremel or a regular file and take something off the front (when the square is ending further inside), to have the inner square going all the way up to the front. Even if you are not 100 percent in a 90 degree angle, this is in any case better than what you hade before. Make sure you are not leaving any abrasion in the key, which could get into your watch.

    And you might be in for a few surprises: I had keys grinded/filed down, which showed a hole instead of a square further inside or a narrowing/widening. A perfect ‘tool’ to mess up your watch.
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    Last edited by Border-Reiver; August 21st, 2015 at 15:42.
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  2. #2
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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    Hi there,

    Quote Originally Posted by Border-Reiver View Post
    The inner square of these new keys ... does not go all the way to the front end. I don’t know why they came up with the idea to move that further inwards.
    The sunk end helps to center the key on the square, and accordingly prevents scratches around the winding hole. For collectors watches which are only wound once in a while, one may regard this advantage better than perfect grip on the square.

    Regards, Roland Ranfft

  3. #3
    Member Border-Reiver's Avatar
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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    Quote Originally Posted by Roland Ranfft View Post
    Hi there,

    The sunk end helps to center the key on the square, and accordingly prevents scratches around the winding hole. For collectors watches which are only wound once in a while, one may regard this advantage better than perfect grip on the square.

    Regards, Roland Ranfft
    First of all, despite the fact that this has already been said several thousand times: 'Thanks for data-base and other valuable information around watches' and the work which went into this. Especially for a collector like me, who has wildly bought antique/vintage/new watches over 30 years, but in lack of time, has thrown everything into drawers and who is now trying to sort out things after retirement.

    You are absolutely correct, especially what concerns collectors watches and only occasional winding. But already here, you should not use a key which might have enough grip, but is wiggling around.

    Most damages have been caused by previous owners, which can be a long line of people, especially when taking about old verge watches.

    I recently paid for a repair and the best/easiest/cheapest solution was to completely file down a square with obvious wear of the edges and almost conical size. It was key size 4 at the lower end and something like to key size 6 at the tip (higher numbers = smaller diameter). Of course, the entire watch had to be taken apart for that, to avoid damage and metal chips getting inside. A totally unnecessary expense, especially if that has been caused by a $1,99 key on a $ 1,000 verge watch (not by me, but that doesn't matter).

    Especially when there is a distinct damage, there should be as much grip as possible along the square bar/stem. With the original keys, of which I have some or at least some from the right period, you have iron on iron, but the new keys are of much harder material and when they slip through, they take off material from the edges. This is also the reason, why for many of those watches, collectors need different keys for winding and setting, which was always one size at the original state.

    Especially when buying watches at auctions or at other places where I can see them first, this has become more a matter my special attention.

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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    Hi there,

    I didn't suggest a not fitting key, only the avantage of the sunk end, and if this was mentioned several thousand times, I wonder why you wrote this:
    Quote Originally Posted by Border-Reiver View Post
    The inner square ....does not go all the way to the front end. I don’t know why they came up with the idea to move that further inwards.

    Quote Originally Posted by Border-Reiver View Post
    ...with obvious wear of the edges and almost conical size.
    But first look close. Some squares are originally filed conically at the top (and only at the top) just for the same reason like the sink in the key end: centering the key. A good idea, because old keys have no sink.

    Quote Originally Posted by Border-Reiver View Post
    but the new keys are of much harder material and when they slip through, they take off material from the edges.
    Right. I therefore generally temper new kies to pale blue to make sure that they are not too hard. Fortunately I have a soldering furnace, and need not remove nickel plating to determine the right temperature.

    Regards, Roland Ranfft

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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    Excellent discussion here of an important aspect for key winder collecters. Reasons why I gather older keys when I see them for sale reasonably. Less than 10% of my kw came with what could have been originals. artb

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    Last edited by artb; August 23rd, 2015 at 21:13.
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  7. #6
    Member Border-Reiver's Avatar
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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    Quote Originally Posted by Roland Ranfft View Post
    Hi there,

    I didn't suggest a not fitting key, only the avantage of the sunk end, and if this was mentioned several thousand times, I wonder why you wrote this:


    But first look close. Some squares are originally filed conically at the top (and only at the top) just for the same reason like the sink in the key end: centering the key. A good idea, because old keys have no sink.

    Right. I therefore generally temper new kies to pale blue to make sure that they are not too hard. Fortunately I have a soldering furnace, and need not remove nickel plating to determine the right temperature.

    Regards, Roland Ranfft
    No doubt, you are the expert and your comments make a lot of sense. The only question I have left: How come, that NONE of the original keys or keys from the 18th or early 19th century I have or have seen, have a sunken end. A dealer, where I get old keys from time to time, must have sold hundreds of those keys and most likely has hundreds in stock. None of them had/has a sunken end.

    Perhaps, that might not be so important for watches from the last generations of the key wind/key set type.

    But also the first makes (I can identify two or perhaps three generations) of 'new' replacement keys up into the 20th century have no sunk end. I have only seen this on the last versions of those keys as they are floating around on the Internet today, besides some other deficiencies they have.
    Last edited by Border-Reiver; August 23rd, 2015 at 15:03.

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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    Quote Originally Posted by artb View Post
    Excellent discussian here of an important aspect for key winder collecters. Reasons why I gather older keys when I see them for sale reasoably. Less than 10% of my kw came with what could have been originals. artb

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    Too bad we can't see the front end of the keys. In order not to redo these fine pictures, just let us know if any of those keys have a distict sunken end.

    I will also increase my efforts to go after old keys if available at a reasonable price. Besides the described problems, not at least the much too hard material the new keys are made of, usings such a new key on an expensive verge watch or later type key wind/key set watch, or putting it aside it in the collection, is like attatching a pink plastic wrist band to a Rolex.

  9. #8
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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    When people think of the use of a key on a watch, they mostly have winding in mind. But those keys are also used for setting the watch. The square bar for setting is a lot shorter, and with a sunken end key, it is often not a question of how much grip you have, as you might not have no grip at all. If that is just at the very end, a damage is inevitable sooner or later.

    The watch displayed below might be an extreme example in this respect, but this is not much different on other watches.
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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    I have 5 more different old key styles and ages all flat ended as are those shown; only a couple late models are not. artb

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    Re: The right key for key-wind and key-set watches

    Hi Art,

    Quote Originally Posted by artb View Post
    I have 5 more different old key styles and ages all flat ended as are those shown; only a couple late models are not. artb
    I didn't notice sunk ends on old keys either, and can only speculate about the reasons. Watches were (and still are) made for daily use, and not for colletors. And as the flat end is marginally cheaper, marginally better refering wear, and as scratches around the holes were likely regarded as consequence of daily use back then, there was no reason for the sunk end. Today the keys are made for collectors watches, and comfortable centering to prevent scratches is more important than wear by occasional use of such watches.

    Anyway, I don't actually mind whether the end is sunk or not, but have another reason to buy old yeys where ever I come across them: The modern keys have often a rather thick end which doesn't fit into holes or dust tubes, and it is boring to disassemble keys to turn the end thinner.. Maybe it's only me who noticed this, because tiny watches belong to my favorits.

    Regards, Roland Ranfft

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